NASHVILLE — Tennesseans diagnosed with diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDs, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis could be prescribed medical cannabis oil-based products under legislation introduced by two Republican state lawmakers Thursday.
The bill's sponsors, Nashville physician Sen. Steve Dickerson and Rep. Jeremy Faison, of Cosby, say at least 65,000 Tennesseans could benefit from what they call safe, regulated access to the drugs.
If passed, it would allow Tennessee to join 30 other states, including Arkansas and Florida, which have authorized similar laws.
"Now is the time for the General Assembly to embrace thoughtful, medically responsible legislation to help Tennessee's sickest residents," Dickerson said about the bill, called the Medical Cannabis Only Act of 2018.
It would not allow the use of recreational marijuana, which some states like California and Colorado have legalized.
The products are derived from specially cultivated marijuana and, proponents say, the bill has tight restrictions.
Patients with more than a dozen types of health conditions could qualify. The list includes Hepatitis C, ALS, post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer's disease, severe arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia and people suffering from seizures characteristic of epilepsy, among others.
"Some of our sickest Tennesseans desperately want the freedom to choose what is best for their own health, and they want to be able to make that decision with their doctor," Faison said. "Now is the time for a safe and healthy alternative to opiates, psychotropics and anti-inflammatories."
But the legislation is already meeting resistance from top Senate Republican leaders, including Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker, as well as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, a physical therapist.
"I would not vote for medical marijuana or recreational marijuana," McNally, a retired pharmacist, said, further telling reporters that clinical research is not plentiful because the federal government has classified pot as a Schedule I drug.
While proponents argue medical cannabis can help address chronic pain, which has led to the opioid epidemic, Watson said, "we have heard this conversation before. This is the exact conversation we had about opioids."
In August, the National Institutes of Health awarded researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System a five-year, $3.8 million grant for what the college described in a news release as "the first long-term study to test whether medical marijuana reduces opioid use among adults with chronic pain, including those with HIV."
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, who is running for governor, has expressed openness to legalizing controlled use of medical marijuana, citing the experience of her own sister who injured herself and used cannabis to avoid using opioids.
Dickerson and Faison touted a recent Vanderbilt University poll showing nearly 80 percent of registered Tennessee voters surveyed support doctors having the option to prescribe medical cannabis to patients.
They also noted a Tennessee law passed in 2014 that allows the administration of cannabis oil in clinical studies into intractable seizures.
The Tennessee Medical Cannabis Trade Association, a business coalition of Tennessee entrepreneurs advocating for legalization of medical cannabis here, announced its support of the bill.
In its news release, the group said there are some 850 medical cannabis products available in other states but illegal to patients here in Tennessee.
"It's time. Tennessee veterans, seniors, women, Christians, Republicans and Democrats all deserve safe, regulated access to medical cannabis," said the group's executive director, Glenn Anderson. "Access to medical treatment options should be based on scientific evidence, and the evidence is clear: medical cannabis is proven to be safe and effective in the treatment of many debilitating conditions."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the name of the Lt. Governor.